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Virginia Tech News / Articles / 2018 / March 

Peer educators make health education accessible and relatable

March 26, 2018

Students at a table
HEAT peer educators host a Contraception Jeopardy workshop at McComas Hall. Photo by Christina Franusich

“Educate, empower, encourage.” Those are the words Maddie Murray ’17 uses to sum up her purpose as a peer health educator.

“College is such a growing time period in your life. What’s missing is confidence,” said Murray, of Stafford, Virginia, a graduate student pursuing a master’s of public health at the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine. This is the third year Murray has been a member of the Health Education and Awareness Team (HEAT), one of the peer education programs in Hokie Wellness.

“We can understand what students are thinking, what they’re going through, so we can make these programs more relevant and more effective,” said HEAT member Emma Pence, a senior from McGaheysville, Virginia, double majoring in international studies with a focus on global development and human development in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences. “It’s not necessarily that we’re teaching to someone, but learning with them and growing with them.”

In addition to HEAT, Initiating and Motivating a Positive Alcohol Culture Together (IMPACT) Peer Education and Prevention Team is a Hokie Wellness program focusing on alcohol awareness. The Peer Assistance for Learning (PAL) program, which is part of Cook Counseling Center, aims to destigmatize mental illness and promote mindfulness.

“The age gap can create a barrier to students feeling comfortable being educated about sensitive topics, especially mental health,” said Andrea Wright ’17, PAL program assistant. “We share parts of our own college journey to make the adjustment to college easier.”

HEAT members educate student groups through interactive workshops and outreach events. Their goal is to raise awareness of consequences associated with unhealthy behaviors and encourage informed decision-making about sex, contraception, nutrition, body image, sleep, skin care, tobacco use, and mental health. IMPACT members focus their efforts on alcohol awareness to reduce the occurrence of negative alcohol-related incidents, to educate students about responsible consumption, and to advocate for change in the campus community. PALs educate students on seeking treatment for mental illness, as well as stress management, time management, and maintaining healthy relationships.

“We facilitate conversations that are very taboo to people growing up,” said HEAT member Chloe Loving, a senior from Annandale, Virginia, studying human nutrition, foods, and exercise in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. “We show students it’s OK to ask questions. People who might never take a condom from someone else might take one from us because they’re borrowing our confidence.”

The information peer educators deliver through workshops or events is, in turn, disseminated by participants to their own networks. It’s less about peer educators reaching every student on campus and more about effectively reaching a few and trusting them to tell their friends.

“We’re teaching our peers how to save a friend’s life and be their own peer educator to the people around them,” said IMPACT member Katrina Stalik, a senior from Stafford, Virginia, studying human development in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences. “We know that our voices are out in the community being echoed.”

HEAT members and PALs volunteer for a two- to three-year commitment, but the intrinsic rewards are enough to keep them interested and motivated to continue. Through personal anecdotes, peer educators shared that students frequently affirm their approach to education, acknowledging their success in making students feel comfortable and giving them a point of contact to wellness services and initiatives.

“When I see people walking around campus with our T-shirts on or when I hear people mention standard drinks when talking about their alcohol consumption, that’s proof we’re making a difference,” said IMPACT member Elizabeth McAuliff, a senior from Fredricksburg, Virginia, double majoring in human nutrition, foods, and exercise in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and Spanish in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences. “I’ve seen a shift from people not knowing basic things about alcohol to noticing people talking about things they’ve learned in workshops. For example, ‘I really don’t want to be hungover tomorrow, so let me calculate my drinks.’ That’s not necessarily direct feedback to us, but we’re sparking thoughts. If someone walks away from class with a seed planted to take into consideration in the future, that’s an accomplishment for us.”

Photo by Christina Franusich

Written by Tiffany Woodall